Advent’s themes, coming right from the Gospel texts for each of the season’s four Sundays — 1) Luke 21:25-36; 2) Luke 3:1-6, 3) Luke 3:7-18, and 4) Luke 1.39-45[46-55] — are not about preparing for Christmas, about consumerism, or about distractions that keep us from what is most important.
Let Advent take us deeper into the truth of our reality than telling us what we already know. Of course we are distracted consumers, but Advent wants to teach us something more: to look at life itself, to know ourselves as we are, and from that insight to hear the promises of God whose life is in our lives.
The Advent proclamation calls forth both an enlarged portrait of human need and the most spectacular articulation of God’s response that a preacher can muster. The work is hard because Advent presents us with a very sharp rendering of life in order to set up our ears and hearts so that when the Nativity comes, we will know why it has come. We will know our deepest need for the birth of God-with-us, Emmanu-el.
The large themes for Advent, of course, arise by amalgamating each Sunday all three of the texts for preaching: the Gospel story, the prophetic word, and the epistle selection. Of those three, the text that crystallizes and grounds the point abide in Luke where lofty ideas are knit into the stories of Jesus and a fig tree, John the Baptist, and Mary.
What are the larger themes? They come in two parts: what we human creatures know of life and what God declares to us. Each Sunday the texts reveal truths about human existence, building each week a new facet of our reality:
- We are situated in the universe in an existential crisis, lacking faith or the ability to find it.
- We are, in fact, imprisoned in skins of yearning.
- Because we live in daily anxiety about the future, we expect disaster, hoard things, fail to share, and “can’t get no satisfaction.”
- Like the little clan to whom the prophet Micah speaks — a people threatened by their powerful neighbors, the Assyrians — we, too, are vulnerable. We long for security. These texts paint a desperate portrait of human existence.
God’s answer, in response to our needs, means to awaken in us appropriate and enormous gratitude:
- The Lord will strengthen us so that we can be alert and ready.
- The Lord will do what is impossible, straightening the crooked ways and smoothing what is rough.
- In the face of what can and does go wrong in our lives, the Lord’s power is greater than all disasters and wars. God’s power will restore and save us.
- The Lord delivers us from pain, exile, separation, and despair.
The specific trajectory of the Lukan texts takes us from one promise to the next: God’s word will not pass away, everyone is to be included, baptism — which is of the Holy Spirit and fire (a mystery!) — is complete in its workings on us, and in the end, Mary’s humility shows us ourselves in relationship with God: an individual who is brought a blessing which she neither earned nor requested.
In Mary’s song, we hear the promise not only of what God does to feed us and make us secure, but also the path to receiving the gifts. The path is what any and all of us have when we are not trying to make ourselves into something we are not. The truths of Advent show us our need for God. They strip away the pretensions in which we cloak ourselves — thinking that having no fear or doubt or weakness will somehow get us through this veil of tears — and when we are brought by God’s word to the edge of existence, there is revealed the light of hope, the blessing, the release from having to prove ourselves. Mary didn’t prove that she was filled with humility and joy before she received the good news. She was simply visited.
Advent takes us through impossible commands (keep vigilance! repent! be satisfied!). If we listen at all, we see we cannot measure up. We can neither stick to the requirements nor remove the need for them. We cannot be satisfied when people are unemployed, lack medical care, lose their life’s savings, or witness the degradation of waterways! Advent shows us that even in the midst of all that is amiss in our world, we are to look to our own failings and stand up. Heeding these words, we hang our heads and quake.
But at the last, in the final words of Advent from the gospel of Luke, we hear the story of Elisabeth and Mary, two pregnant women. In the face of our incapacity, the word of God shows us love. These women are filled with the Holy Spirit. The coming of the holy one is all about the Spirit’s creating within us and between us a joy that finally comes out in a song of completely modest triumph. It is not Mary who has made this love occur but the one who scatters the proud and fills the hungry.
Advent shows us we are hungry, especially in the ways that we may think we are not hungry, and then fills us with good things for the journey.